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Making the RISD Museum sizzle

Can new director John W. Smith polish Providence's hidden gem?

NEW FRONTIERS Smith in front of the Chace Center, a grand overture to the city of Providence.

The Rhode Island School of Design Museum is one of New England's — and America's — most underappreciated and underperforming cultural treasures.

It is the job of John W. Smith, who is eight months into his tenure as director, to change that.

Smith certainly has the raw material with which to work. The museum's architecture is a winning jaunt from the Federal to the contemporary. And its 86,000-object permanent collection, the backbone of any art museum, has impressive range: from its signature 12th-century Buddha sculpture to the dresses of Yves Saint Laurent and paintings of Andy Warhol.

Fifty years ago a strong collection guaranteed an institution a muscular reputation. And there was a time, in recent memory, when RISD was considered by many professionals to be among nation's elite art museums.

As oil and technology money filled the coffers of Sunbelt and West Coast institutions in the mid-20th century, the cultural landscape began to shift.

But the earthquake came in 1967 when Thomas Hoving assumed the directorship of New York's Metropolitan Museum and redefined what a successful museum was with programming that sizzled and exhibitions that made headlines.

In Hoving's wake, museums came to be measured not so much by their static holdings, but what they did with them. And in the Digital Age — the web the new wing of the American museum — the range of potential deployments is exploding.

It is here that the RISD Museum finds itself, trying to rebuild with new tools. And all eyes are on Smith — a sharp, energetic character with dark, round-rimmed glasses and no small ambition for the place.


Smith, 52, grew up in the tiny town of Enfield — population 586 — in southern Illinois, "about as far away from Chicago as you can get," he says, never mind the international art world.

An English major at Southern Illinois University, he moved north with little idea of what he would do. "I ended up getting a job at the Art Institute of Chicago," he says, "working in the library — in the archives there — and it really kind of opened up this world to me that I didn't know existed."

Smith continued to work as an archivist, first at the Andy Warhol Museum, where he also served as assistant director for collections, exhibitions, and research, and then at the Archives of American Art.

Archivists are not generally viewed as director material; there'd be some grousing from other finalists when he won the RISD job. But Smith was building a reputation as a strong manager with a knack for cultivating interest in the underappreciated.

The Archives of American Art, known as the Fort Knox of the art world, is a collection of 16 million objects documenting the history of the nation's visual arts: letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, videos, manuscripts, and financial records.

Long viewed as a resource for academics, it had a limited public profile for most of its history. But that was changing when Smith took the helm in 2006. A full-time exhibition space was just coming on line, tucked into the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. And the new director brought in artists like punk icon Patti Smith, whose drawings and manuscripts he'd shown at the Warhol, to present archival material.

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Related: Museums and Galleries preview: Looking ahead, Louise Marianetti at Bert Gallery; plus, Brian Knep at RISD, At RISD: 2x4s, tape, and 'Co-Habitation', More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Museums, Providence, RISD,  More more >
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